After graduating college, Travis Wild soon found that spending time in the mountains and on trails in Colorado gave him a place to reconnect with himself and restore his mind.
“For me, the outdoors are how everything is supposed to be without influence of problems,” Wild said, adding that nature has been the steady support in his life through rough times.
When he was diagnosed with testicular cancer almost five years ago, at age 26, Wild turned to nature to destress and cope with the difficult situation. The diagnosis came when he was changing jobs, changing relationships and mourning the loss of his grandmother.
“Outside was a place that I could go to step back and be in control a little more,” Wild said. “I got to feel normal again. Sometimes it was the only thing I had to look forward to.”
Now, Wild lives on the road, having turned his passion for outdoor space and adventure into a career as an adventure photographer. But whenever he gets time off, he makes sure to come back to the Colorado wilderness.
Wild is not alone when it comes to feeling improved mental health in the outdoors.
Proximity to green space has been associated with lower levels of stress and a reduction of symptoms for depression and anxiety, while interacting with nature can improve cognition for children with attention deficits and individuals with depression.
“As a psychologist, when we’re trained we don’t talk about things like being outdoors as an intervention,” said Benjamin Miller, a psychologist on the board of Mental Health Colorado. “But when you think about the exposure to nature, there’s no surprise that it can decrease some symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
One study found that 30 minutes of nature exposure per week reduces depression by 7 percent and can reduce high blood pressure by 9 percent.
“One of the really interesting things this study shows is that nature contact during the workday leads to lower stress and higher job satisfaction,” Miller said.
In addition to being surrounded by nature, Miller said the practices that come with it help to improve mental health.
“We are we able to rest our minds and be present and focus on the moment,” Miller said.
In 2018, 55 percent of visitors to Jefferson County Open Space parks and trails said they saw the outdoor space as adding extreme benefit to their emotional wellbeing, ranking it fourth on a survey that measured the benefits of open space.
Last year, an estimated 7 million people visited the 56,000 acres of preserved land, 28 parks and 244 miles of trail in the Jeffco Open Space park system.
“We all knew it in our hearts, but to see it on paper was impactful,” said Mary Ann Bonnell, visitor services manager for Jeffco Open Space. “We now understand that people implicitly come to our parks for emotional wellbeing.”
This was the first time the survey, conducted last in 2011, measured this metric.
The next step, Bonnell said, is to protect visitor experience as best as possible. That means preserving a quiet park and trail, so those who want to connect with nature can.
Jeffco Open Space has an amplified music regulation as well as a drone ban and leash law.
“I know these seem tangential, but it’s respecting the experience people are having outdoors,” Bonnell said. “We want to make sure that while you’re getting your fix, you’re not denying that stress release from others.”